Theaters embrace digital age

More shows testing limits of new technology

In the past 15 years, most branches of showbiz have undergone a high-tech revolution, as digital technology has changed everything from a film’s visual effects to the way a music album is sold.

Now theater, the last holdout, seems to have lowered its resistance and is embracing the changes.

Only a few seasons ago, audiences complained of migraines induced by the computer-animated sets of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White” and critics yawned over the prosaic projections in the failed Johnny Cash musical, “Ring of Fire.”

Before it came to Broadway, Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy experimented with electronic design, yielding an ambivalent response in London and a decision to opt for more traditional stage design in the New York production.

But this season, everything from Shakespeare to Mel Brooks, from Sondheim to the Rockettes are wiggling their digitals. .

Theater creators initially appeared wary of digital input, fearing it was a gimmick, that it upstaged the actors, or that it was an attempt to turn theater into cinema. But the technology is now capable of creating dazzling stage effects that are a far cry from the old-fashioned film projections used in “multimedia shows” since the 1960s.

Instead of a movie theater-style projection from the back of the house with a beam over the audience’s heads, digital projections are generated by a computer attached to the sound and lighting board. The impact of this technology and its increasingly sophisticated effects on theatercraft is only just beginning to be felt.

Last winter, for instance, the 75th anniversary staging of “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular” dropped the Rockettes into a computerized version of Santa’s workshop. And the audience went on a virtual sleigh ride, during which 3-D polar bears and penguins lobbed snowballs at them.

In the current “Sunday in the Park With George,” painter Georges Seurat’s dog, sketched with a few brushstrokes on canvas, suddenly comes to life, wagging its tail. In addition to a computer grid in the theater, “Sunday” also utilizes a backstage projector that transmits images onto a mirror, which then bounces them onto the rear stage wall.

In the Broadway-bound revival of “Macbeth,” starring Patrick Stewart and beginning perfs March 29, Banquo’s ghost appears out of an industrial elevator as bloody tendrils spread like ivy vines across the back wall.

The glowingly reviewed tuner “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island,” which just closed at the Vineyard, integrated live actors with animated sets and props.

These are just a handful of the highest-profile projection-heavy works that have recently clicked with mainstream auds and critics. Their successes may help secure broader acceptance for virtual stagecraft.

To understand what has changed, it helps to remember the negative connotations of projected scenery.

For one thing, the use of onstage projections has long been interpreted as a symbolic statement.

“At first, people were using video to represent the evils of technology,” says Jim Findlay, who designed the animation for “Slug Bearers” and has created video for avant-garde companies for more than six years. “Like any other innovation, it took a while to use it without detracting from the show.”

Now, Findlay adds, with video effects appearing even at business meetings, people are becoming accustomed to them. “The audience can just accept it as another element of the show, instead of wondering what the technology itself is supposed to represent,” he explains.

The other assumption has been that projections dehumanize a live performance.

“You can’t have two shows going on, the cinematic show and the actors trying to get attention in front of it,” says David Farley, set and costume designer on “Sunday.” “That gives you a backdrop with no dynamic. To me, that was the problem with ‘The Woman in White.’ ”

The current revival of “Sunday” moved from London’s theatrical fringe to the West End, and from there to Broadway in January. The production, which began at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005, has been praised for cleverly blending animation with flesh-and-blood elements.

If computerized sets feel divorced from the production around them, they also risk making theatergoers feel cheated. Audiences might grumble they are seeing cheap, cinematic imitations of the the three-dimensional experience only live theater can provide.

Farley addressed that concern by incorporating tangible props in “Sunday” that double as projection screens. For instance, an actual drooping curtain in Seurat’s studio gets hit with video and is transformed into a tree in a park. “Tangible details make the experience real,” he says. “It keeps everything connected with the performers on the stage.”

Similar touches enhance “Young Frankenstein,” which blends video and set pieces to give depth to the trees in an eerie Transylvanian forest. That integrated approach, folding traditional 3-D and digital elements together into one seamless setting, still may be the most viable route for new technology in theater. Going all-digital remains trickier, generally requiring projections that complement a show’s “real world” and are vital to the plot.

“If they can unlock an element of the text that wouldn’t be better in any other way, then they’re valuable,” says “Sunday” director Sam Buntrock. “Otherwise, there’s no point.”

Even leaders in the field are judicious about working in legit. “More often than not, I say, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” says Timothy Bird, whose firm Knifedge handled the animation in “Sunday.” “If (projections) are just a gimmick, they have no impact.”

Buntrock has frequently said he brought digital sets to “Sunday” because the tuner celebrates the creative process. As Seurat conceives a work, we can see it take shape all around him, with animated lines evolving into finished images.

Meanwhile, the projections in “Slug Bearers” echo its theme of being connected to (or distanced from) one’s environment. Cartoonist-playwright Ben Katchor hand-drew every sketch that was animated for the production.

“Drawings are an extension of your body,” he says. “They transform the set into a personality onstage with the actors.”

But even with a solid concept, digital scenery can’t succeed unless the creatives are in sync.

“The interaction between departments — the human element — is actually the most challenging bit,” says Bird. “We’re learning a new language, whether that’s jargon or ways of working. At first, there’s always a question of getting people to communicate.”

Active collaboration is the obvious solution. Bird says the Broadway incarnation of “Sunday” was the easiest to plan because the creatives were granted extensive time to storyboard each moment of the show together, addressing each other’s needs as they went along.

Technological advances also made that collaboration possible. “Even in the last three years, the methods for creating and delivering content have become incredibly streamlined,” says Buntrock, who also has a background in animation. “Now you can be experimental with technology almost as easily a you can with lights or scenery.”

In other words, until recently, it was almost impossible to change digital elements on the fly. If an animated boat was moving too quickly, it might take a week to slow it down, forcing artists to halt their process or simply accept unsatisfactory material. Now, the change can be made in about a day, allowing projection designers more involvement in a show’s ongoing development.

That could soothe technophobic legiters. Other good news: The technology has gotten cheaper. Findlay says a projector that would have cost $45,000 six years ago will now run around $10,000. “If you look at the scale of what sets cost, computers are going down,” he adds.

As much as anything, price slashing could cement the future of digital design. Observes Buntrock: “The switch in the producer’s head that said ‘technology means money’ has now, rightly, been turned off.”

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